The English Armada: Battles at Sea I

Engraving of the galley of the Adelantado of Castile, Royal Palace (Palacio Real), Madrid.

A gentle breeze was blowing as dawn broke on Monday, 19 June, and so the Adelantado of Castile ‘set out that morning with nine ships in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was coming round Cape Saint Vincent’. As the ships sailed out, ‘they encountered a French vessel that was fleeing from the Armada with seventy Englishmen on board; the French were allowed to take everything off them, which they did in such a way that they almost skinned them alive’. That is how the tragic withdrawal of the English Armada began, and as we shall see, their losses were just as great as during the Spanish Armada. Stripped and with their bodies lacerated by their French captors, these Englishmen were the first of what was to become an almost unmanageable number of prisoners that soon gave the Spaniards some serious logistical problems.

Later that same day, ‘a Flemish store ship appeared out at sea and the Adelantado sent across Don Francisco Coloma and Don Juan Puertocarrero with their galleys. They found about fifty Englishmen who were readily handed over by the Flemish without a struggle. Both this ship and the French vessel were allowed to sail for Lisbon.’ Not a great deal was gleaned from interrogating the Englishmen. ‘It was understood from the English that the fleet was heading for Cádiz, and in view of that the Adelantado asked permission from the Cardinal Archduke to take all his galleys to stop the enemy. His Highness granted the request provided that he did not take more than nine of his galleys.’ And so as night fell on Monday, 19 June 1589, the fearless Padilla stayed on course with his nine galleys in pursuit of the English. At the same time, in Lisbon, fifteen caravels with extra men and munitions were being made ready in order to reinforce the strategically important Azores. It is clear that day by day the Spanish recovery was taking shape at the same time that the defeat of the English was being planned, although, as will be seen, adverse winds prevented the reinforcement flotilla for the Azores from setting sail immediately.

The oars of the galley slaves followed the unvarying rhythm set by the overseer. Stroke after stroke the blades of the oars emerged from the water, were turned in the air and then thrust in the water once more. For its part, the gentle northerly breeze helped the galleys’ oarsmen along as they blindly pursued their objective through the darkness of the night. There were only two cannons mounted at the prow and two at the stern on these ships, as there was no room at the sides because of the oars and the low clearance above the level of the sea. However, these cannons had been carefully chosen from among the reinforced culverins of the period. They were long-range cannons and, when fired from under five hundred metres, were very accurate, effective and had great destructive force. In addition, over short distances the power of the muskets and harquebuses could wipe out the decks, topsails, upper decks and embrasures of enemy ships. In this way,

with these nine galleys he [Padilla] went in pursuit of the enemy but without any sight of him, and three hours before daybreak he found himself in the middle of the Armada. To confirm that was where he was, he sent an Englishman, Captain Eduardo Grecio, in a skiff to talk to the nearest ship, where they told him that they were not following the Admiral. From this conversation it was clear that this was the whole fleet and they had been among them without the enemy realizing it until dawn.

So dawn on 20 June found the nine galleys in the middle of the scattered English Armada. It was time to intercept the stragglers, and so Padilla placed his ship like a wedge between them and the rest of the fleet. Sure enough, ‘the Adelantado endeavoured to position himself on the right side of the wind and once he had done so he captured all the ships that were out of position. With his galley he attacked three large supply ships, a tender and a barge and other galleys came to his assistance, especially that of Don Juan Puertocarrero.’ For its part ‘La Patrona, with Don Andrés de Atienza on board, took a supply ship together with La Peregrina, Serena, Leona, Palma, and Florida, and these two stayed with it until it was set alight.’ And so, one by one, the ships that had become separated from the fleet fell into Padilla’a hands.

For his part, Alonso de Bazán ‘attacked a ship from Plymouth which had fallen behind and in the boarding of the ship that followed its Captain Caverley was killed with most of his men. Two other straggling ships were attacked and sunk by the galleys. In one of them Captain Minshaw and his crew fought heroically until they disappeared engulfed in flames.’ There is a different report concerning the fate of Captain Caverley, which gives him as a prisoner, for ‘having abandoned his ship, he escaped in a small boat and was then captured’. Several documents record Bazán’s attack. This is how John Evesham describes it:

On the morning of the 20th and with the sea in a state of calm eight galleys headed in a windward direction towards us and attacked two of our small ships that were said not to have been able to defend themselves due to a lack of gunpowder and munitions. However, as far as I know and thanks to God’s assistance these two escaped. Then the galleys attacked two other small ships head on and upwind and they were caught and set alight and the survivors taken prisoner. In addition, I was told that the William, commanded by Mr Hawkins of Plymouth, whose men, so I heard, sailed off in a small boat, was set fire to two or three times, although the fire went out. Then the Admiral arrived and with one cannon shot ensured that the galleys left him alone. But they pursued the small boat in order to capture the men and although they failed to do so they sank it and all the men drowned. And the (the word ‘burnt’ is struck out) boat was sunk by our own men because there were not enough men to sail it.

Other documents and writers recorded these attacks by the galleys. For example, the Spanish press described it thus:

And so on the morning of the nineteenth of June [the Adelantado] sailed out with nine ships in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was coming round Cape St. Vincent, and before any encounter they met up with a further six galleys that joined forces with them, and when they came across the enemy fleet they used their cannons against them on the twentieth and the twenty-fifth of June, for there was little wind and they were able to do a great deal of damage. They set fire to three ships, while others said five, they sank two others and took prisoners from them all, causing a lot of damage to the remainder but without the galleys incurring any serious damage in return.

The Portuguese press referred to three sunk and two set on fire. Cabrera de Córdoba wrote of four sunk and an unspecified number of ships burnt. Juan de Arquellada mentions seven sunk or set ablaze, while Duro had four sunk by the Adelantado and three set on fire by Alonso de Bazán. Hume wrote of three sunk or captured and one burnt. More recently, Kelsey wrote of five or six ships lost. However, apart from González-Arnao, no attention was paid to the fate of the ships captured earlier by the English Armada in Cascais, which had come to form part of the fleet. In summary, on 19 June, two of the merchant vessels seized by Drake and manned by captured crewmen were released. One of them, the French one, made its own way to join the galleys. On 20 June, another four supply ships, also with English crewmen, were captured, and in addition most probably a tender and a barge from among the vessels seized by Drake. Between three and five English ships of low-tonnage – the most numerous by far in the English fleet – were also destroyed and others were damaged, a total of between nine and eleven ships and two smaller craft. About seven hundred Englishmen were taken out of action, of whom one hundred and thirty survived the attacks and were taken prisoner.

On 20 June 1589, the Spanish finally achieved what had been denied them ten months earlier: boarding English ships. The galleys, old-world Mediterranean vessels, had as their main weapon a sharp ram which punched into the hull of enemy ships and acted as a boarding bridge. Galleys were attack ships driven by the strength of the galley slaves or oarsmen and the courage of the soldiers on board. The galley slaves were prisoners of war, men sentenced by law or volunteers called buenas bollas (‘good loaves’) because they were better fed. Artillery was mounted on the bow and aimed by steering the whole ship. Propelled by oar and sail, they were more mobile than the heavy galleons, and if there was no wind they could get behind them and bombard them or board them, as happened at Cape Espichel.

While the rearguard was under attack, the rest of the fleet, far from coming to their aid, took advantage of the fact that the Spanish were distracted by their prey and they made their getaway. The English and the Spanish were unanimous in their contempt for Drake’s extremely unhappy position at this time. In a letter on 20 July, the Adelantado explained:

Even though there was little wind, it helped them to crowd together and take refuge, and the cowardice shown by the whole fleet was a sight to see. And it is clear that in this and in what the prisoners say about the hail of bullets that rained down upon them, this was the work of God to rid these heretics of their pride.

Fenner would not have disagreed with this description by Padilla, for he called the resistance which they met as ‘shameful’.

Padilla treated the crew of the support ships well, as indicated in his letter: ‘Some of the officers and sailors of the Flemish and German ships that were seized will be set free because they were taken by the enemy by force and brought to Spain. I do so without expecting anything in return and I will give them payment because it is desirable to have them willingly serve Your Majesty.’ Returning to the naval operations, ‘the two largest supply ships were set on fire within range of Drake’s cannons and the same action was taken with the other ships, but it wasn’t as effective and one was sunk by the artillery of the flagship’. Meanwhile,

Drake’s flagship and another large flagship carrying the infantry general, together with some other large ships, were trying to regroup their fleet, which they were all so eager to do that it required little effort. All five ships mentioned took part in the fighting, and the remaining vessels nearby assisted them with artillery, especially the flagship, which was being towed by two well-armed barges.

Losses in the galleys were surprisingly few, for ‘in all the galleys there were no more than two dead and up to seventy wounded, the best known of these a son of Juan Ruiz de Velasco’. The explanation for the satisfactory part played by the galleys is explained as follows: ‘The speed with which our harquebuses and artillery operated was of great importance and did not allow the enemy to get into the fight. The enemy’s artillery caused no damage to the galleys, although some bullets did reach the flagship and other vessels.’ That campaign of attrition against the defeated English Armada ended in the early afternoon, for ‘the fighting lasted from dawn until two hours after midday, when the galleys withdrew to rest a while in view of the fact that the enemy had regrouped’.

It was fear of the galleys that led to the dispersal of the fleet. Evesham wrote of this fear in his account: ‘So we two did bear in as near Bayona as we durst for fear of the galleys.’ Later the wind allowed the English to move away from the coast:

At five in the afternoon the enemy sailed so far from the coast that scarcely a ship could be seen, and at this the Adelantado went round Cape St. Vincent to take on water because the galleys were in need of it, and there he waited until the enemy went past, as it would have to do if it was heading for Cádiz.

It was impossible to discover the intentions of the English Armada from the nine prisoners taken during that morning. In fact,

Captains, Sub-lieutenants, English gentlemen and an engineer were taken. They were asked many questions about the destination of the fleet and they all said different things and they all agreed that no-one knows but they suspect that it is heading for Cádiz. Others said that the Infantry General will be returning to England with the whole fleet, and Drake, with Dom António on board, is going with forty of the best ships to the Islands and the Indies. On the one hand they are on the right track to go to the Islands and for the fleet to go to England, and on the other hand it seems that if they had to go (to England) they should have gone from Cascais when the Dutch and Zealand and La Rochelle ships were allowed to go.

In any event, Padilla was not far off the mark when he gave his opinion on the matter: ‘I also believe that their lack of personnel, due to the number they have lost and those who have died and are dying from disease, means that it is quite likely that they have to return.’

What was learned from these prisoners was the fleet’s total lack of provisions:

They said that if they hadn’t seized the wheat-carrying ships that were heading for Lisbon, they would have left their men in Portugal without letting them on board, because they had nothing to give them. Now they have to manage with gruel made from flour and boiled wheat, and more of them fall ill every day. But the ones who get this to eat are the soldiers; the sailors are much better fed.

We do not know how much in these statements is accurate, but they are symptomatic of the malaise and demoralization that had passed through the fleet from one ship to the next. It has already been mentioned that the little food there was, was kept for Drake’s sailors. This fact is significant. The proportion of sailors was already low when the English set sail, but now, after so many setbacks and so much time at sea, packed together without even basic conditions of hygiene and with disease rife on the ships’ decks, the scarcity of sailors began to be a determining factor, as will later become quite clear.

Moreover the prisoners were also aware of the desperate attempts by Drake to secure assistance from the Muslims as promised: ‘They said that Drake sent eight ships to Barbary with an ambassador of the Sharif who came while the fleet was in Cascais.’ This information was corroborated in part, for ‘the three galleys that had just arrived from Cádiz brought news that they went round Cape St. Vincent’. Padilla independently drew his own conclusions: ‘The Sharif will deceive him, as he does with all those who have dealings with him.’ But what really moved the Adelantado of Castile was the sight of the state to which the monastery of Santo Antonio had been reduced after the English had passed through: ‘Next to Cascais there is a monastery of discalced monks called Santo Antonio and its heartless neighbours broke up the altar and the choir and did some further minor damage, and it grieved me greatly to see it.’ Padilla was so affected by the sight of it that in his letter to the King, he added:

And I vowed to God and to the Saint that if I am successful against those heretics, I would endeavour to persuade Your Majesty to restore it to its previous state, and if not, I would pay for it myself. May it please Your Majesty to perform this kind act, because I feel that it would be most pleasing to Our Lord.

However, the destruction of the monastery was but a prior warning of the state in which the Iberians would find Cascais.

The military operations on 20 June exacerbated a problem that would get even worse days later and that was the matter of the growing number of prisoners:

Since I have been in charge of these galleys some prominent captains have been taken and held on board, in addition to some important French corsairs, and amongst the English that were taken on the 20th there are also, as I have indicated, some men of standing, so that all told there is a significant number of them and we have to keep a constant eye on them. I ask Your Majesty to command that we be given assurances that they will be placed somewhere where they are no longer our concern, and to determine the treatment that shall be given to the English. They will be given rations like the sailors, whether they are rowers or not. In my opinion this could be justified for those who have been captured since the war started and they can be given these rations for as long as they remain on the galleys, and unless Your Majesty orders otherwise, they will be given volunteer rations. They are dying off quite quickly, thereby leaving fewer of them for us to deal with.

This terrible commentary indicates the virulence of the disease that took hold among the English expedition.

The action on the morning of 20 June brought about the dispersal of the English Armada with a good number of ships going off course. Thereafter it became difficult to continue to follow the path taken by the fleet which was now largely broken up and dispersed. This situation has been attributed to Drake’s inexperience or ineptitude in managing large fleets, for due to the way he acted he exacerbated the damage inflicted by the galleys on the English Armada, even though initially it was limited because the Spanish galleys were few in number. Drake did not give sufficient priority to ordering the fleet to divide into five squadrons, as had been agreed in Plymouth. On the contrary, the pirate-cum-admiral, possibly unduly influenced by the laxity of piracy when commanding his ships, allowed the Spanish attack to create widespread chaos among the considerable number of English vessels because of his neglect. That is when he lost track of many of them and they were lost forever. One of these was the Gregory from London. On 20 June, this ship was fired on by the galleys and could no longer keep up with the fleet. Or the case of William Fenner, with his flagship of the recently arrived reinforcement squadron, which became detached from the fleet after the attack by the galleys and, in desperation, had to head to Madeira where it would later meet up with other ships.38 In any event, the first squadron of the fleet to set sail, which included Essex, the Dutch and the sick among others, gained the open sea before the attack by the galleys and managed to head north. They were sighted a few days later off the coast of Galicia.

In spite of everything, following the attack by the galleys the majority of the fleet gradually managed to reassemble and so ‘on Tuesday the 20th, at three in the afternoon, they reappeared above Cape Espichel and the town of Sesimbra, whereupon the Duke of Aveiro took up arms in Setúbal, where Your Highness had ordered him, and very bravely and diligently prepared to resist’. All that Drake could do with the calm waters and the westerly breezes was to bring his ships together and wait for favourable winds. The English Armada could no longer undertake any action of significance and their situation grew worse by the day. Moreover, they could no longer land on that coast due to the maximum alert ordered by the Duke of Aveiro, ‘with most captains having arms at the ready for any surprise attack’.

But with the English fleet now at sea, the Iberians focused on Peniche, where five hundred men of the garrison that Norris had assigned on 28 May to provide cover if required were still waiting, with growing unease, for a rescue flotilla to enable them to get away. But amid the chaos and dispersion caused by the galleys and the sea conditions, the rescue ships did not appear. Hence, ‘so that they could attack the enemy in Peniche and take their artillery and prevent them from doing further damage … Dom Martinho quickly wrote to His Highness and to the Counts Fuentes and Vila de Orta’. In this way, ‘that same day (20th) Don Pedro de Guzmán and Don Sancho Bravo set out with their mounted harquebusiers and horsemen under Gaspar de Alarcón, and four hundred harquebusiers with Captains Castillo and Ocampo, heading for Peniche where the enemy had left five hundred men’. That march from Lisbon had to proceed at the pace of the infantry, so that it inevitably took them some time to reach Peniche.

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